I was on a highway deep into the New Mexico desert when Hurricane Hugo hit my town. I bent toward the radio speaker, leaning in against the static, listening to a man who was reporting live from a hotel lobby 12 blocks from my house in Charleston, S.C. He was describing how the roof above his head had flown off into the night, how chandeliers were crashing around his feet, how sheets of horizontal rain were slamming the windows. I looked out the window of my rental car: yucca plants, tumbleweed and cactus in the still moonlight, no moisture for miles except the recent road kill. I caught a red-eye home.
I pulled into Charleston the day after Hugo pulled out. Through the wreckage and rubble I drove, crunching over shingles, shattered glass and downed power lines, weaving around fallen trees, telephone poles and road signs, staring up at the obscenity of facadeless houses, naked toilet bowls and underwear-strewn bedrooms with wedding photographs still hanging on the walls, for all in the street to see. Houses that had survived earthquake, fire and the Civil War, torn to pieces or pancaked; stately shingled churches looking like scaled fish. But this is silliness. No metaphor or photograph can catch what this hurricane did. A man can only know it with his guts.
It took three approaches to find a road to our house through which our car could fit. One road was blocked by centuries-old trees, which had been ripped up by the roots and had brought the sidewalk and sewer system with them. Another road was filled up by a 50-foot sailboat on its side. A 200-foot-high crane atop a barge that had been in the middle of the Ashley River two days earlier, lifting sections for a new bridge, leaned against the telephone wire in a lot a few blocks away.
When I did reach my house, I jumped out to survey the damage. I had lost a section of roof. I had lost a pear tree and a wax myrtle. I had lost a garage door, which the five-foot wall of water surging up our street had slapped out of its way, along with some sheetrock and some tools I had never known how to use anyway. Not bad, I thought, gazing at the calamities all around me. It was right about then that I realized I'd lost my manhood in that hurricane too.
"Garrrryyy," my neighbor called, "where the hell were you?"
"New Mexico," I said. "Working on a story. Evacuated Sally and the kids to North Carolina and then got on a plane. So you stayed?"
"Damn right I stayed," said my neighbor. "How could you, being a writer, have taken off? It was the most intense night of my life. Man, I can't believe you left. Decades from now, people here will know who left and who stayed. This hurricane was a test of character." "But . . . but I couldn"t stay here with a two-year-old and a four-year-old," I stammered, "and with every radio station telling people to get the hell out."
"Nobody's blaming you, having little kids and all," he said. "But what other men did was send their wives and kids out of town and stay with their houses."
For the next week, that was all I heard, three or four times a day. How could I have not been there—to hear Hugo put his lips to our chimneys and howl down them, to feel our three-story houses sway, to turn and run, during the eye of the hurricane, from the frothing wall of water bursting down our street? my neighbor kept wondering. Not exactly in those words, but close, because he's a lawyer and he loves to see grown men squirm. What could I say? I had never been in this old city for a hurricane; I had lived here only two years and didn't know the rules. I dug out a flannel shirt, my ugliest pants and oldest sneakers, and I went out into the muck to recapture my manhood, if by chance I should see it floating by. I helped clear mattresses from sodden houses, a giant oak from a schoolyard, a shattered magnolia from an old lady's front yard. Was that enough to get it back? I wondered. Could I show my face in Charleston a hundred years from now?
There was nothing to do but work. The hungry and homeless were everywhere, and there was no electric power or water safe to drink for nearly a week. Chopping wood, stacking it, sweeping rubble and scrubbing away the pluff mud heaved up from the bottom of the harbor was all a man with a livable house and a guilty conscience could do.
I couldn't write. The scene, as I looked out the window over my desk, was too horrific. Enough trees had been snapped, according to local experts, to build 660,000 new homes—I was certain they were talking about the yard across the street alone. I couldn't jog. My neighbor had warned me that the grandchildren of the grandchildren of a man caught jogging under these circumstances would be forever marked by other Charlestonians, and besides, I didn't have the heart for it. The roar of chain saws, generators, work trucks and military helicopters filled the air. The parks and playgrounds were defoliated, desolate. National Guardsmen stood on our corners with bayoneted M-16s, enforcing a 7 p.m. curfew.
So I just worked, keeping my eyes open to see what a hurricane does to people, my ears open to hear the stories. I saw some people praying for help to the same skies that had sent them Hugo, some sobbing that they hated this place and wanted to die. Some quadrupling the price of chain saws or a bag of ice, some knocking on every door and asking if anyone needed help. There was no thinly hidden glee in what happened here, the kind you might find in other American cities, where men want to forget, to take a wrecking ball to the old and replace it with the new. Charleston is in love with its past. But I could see an animation in the men working in all the yards and streets, a glow that came from something else. The whole city was shut down, and men confined to offices for years, men decades past their time on sporting fields, seemed almost to relish the days of muscle work that lay before them, the liberation from desks and computers, the massive physical project to be attacked as a neighborhood team.
Each night, picking our way through the absolute darkness with candles or flashlights, we gathered around a neighbor's charcoal grill in groups of 10 or 12, cooking meat and fish that had to be eaten before it spoiled, drinking daiquiris and beers chilled with hard-won ice, and swapping tales. Late one night, when we'd had enough daiquiris, my neighbor and I dodged the sweeping floodlights of the patrolling police cars and broke curfew to get one more look at that monstrous river crane belched up by the storm surge. Some small sliver of manhood, this adventure would retrieve for me, I was sure.
But it is the stories of survival, not wreckage, that we keep telling and retelling, as if to reassure ourselves. The story of the golden retriever who swam from a barrier island to the mainland during the storm and was reunited with its owner. Of the man who climbed from his disintegrating boat and hugged the stanchion of a ruptured, wildly swinging bridge all night. Of the two people walking past a battered house on nearby Folly Beach, hearing a strange flapping noise inside and discovering a live dolphin inside the living room—six days after the hurricane.
Still, I think about the man with nine trees through his roof. About the people in a public shelter in a nearby town, who climbed on chairs as the flood rose to their throats, broke through the ceiling panels and held their babies up to the air-conditioning vents to keep them from drowning. About the local people found dead in the rubble.
I'm not sure what I'm going to do the next time a hurricane comes to Charleston. Somehow I keep getting this feeling I'm going to lose my manhood again.